South Philly has a new Miss Pennsylvania

Photos/Mark Zimmaro

Winning pageants was something Emily Stephens once thought wasn’t possible. Now it’s becoming a tradition.

The 23-year-old South Philly native was crowned National American Miss Pennsylvania 2023 earlier this month after winning the highly-touted contest at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton, New Jersey. It follows a win six years ago when she was named National American Miss Pennsylvania Teen as a 17-year-old.

Not bad for a self-proclaimed shy kid who grew up in the Italian Market and now lives in Pennsport.

“I was so shy growing up and I always felt like the ugly duckling a little bit,” Stephens admitted. “The other girls in my class would be super sporty and athletic and a lot skinnier than I was. They weren’t afraid to raise their hand. I just felt shy and not confident in who I was. But every year, pageants helped me break out of that shell.”

Stephens started pageantry events at age 12, which came as a surprise to not only herself, but her mother Susan Solomon.

“She was shocked that she had a pageant girl for a child,” Stephens said with a laugh. “She was into the underground punk rock band scene and was a little bit of a tomboy. She was very rock and roll. And then all of the sudden I said I wanted to do pageants and she was like, OK. And now she loves it. It’s something we get to do together.”

Stephens joined the National American Miss, which is one of several pageants that are run in the United States, with many going on to compete in the highly-produced Miss America and Miss USA pageants once they age out of younger pageants. 

In the National American Miss pageants, representatives are chosen on the basis of four required areas of competition, including communication skills during a personal introduction; poise and presentation during the formal wear modeling competition; personality, communication and confidence in an interview; and participation in a community service project on pageant weekend. 

It’s not the stereotypical glitz and glamor beauty pageant of the past.

“It’s not a requirement by any means but you do want to be in great shape and present the best version of yourself on stage,” Stephens said. “But I do think the pageant system has evolved so much. It used to be something women did for men and it was the male gaze and didn’t serve any purpose but to prove you were prettier. But I think the girls that come to pageants now are so much more than their appearance and their looks, that you don’t win anymore on body type.”

National American Miss aims to instill confidence in young women and give them social skills to adapt to real-life situations. Stephens started pageantry while attending middle school at the Philadelphia School at 25th and Lombard, and continued into high school at Science Leadership Academy, where she was also on the debate team and girls volleyball team.

“Even after that first year, the confidence I gained by stepping out onto a stage and walking into a room knowing no one and meeting all of these girls from across the state was unbelievable,” Stephens said. “They were all things I hadn’t experienced before. So I competed from 12 until about 19.”

She then took about four years off to focus on college at the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in communications and minored in economics with certificates in sustainability and digital media. After school she moved back home to South Philly and admittedly struggled to find her next step. She remembered fondly competing in pageants and being at the height of her confidence.

“I looked back at when I was 17, I was so confident and so involved. I would go up and talk to anybody,” Stephens said. “I felt like I had a lot of social anxiety coming back after college. You have to restart life a little bit. I wasn’t in a great mental space. I really miss how I was when I was 17. So I thought maybe I should compete again. Even if I didn’t win the title, I wanted to prove that I could work really hard for something and get all of those skills back and be on stage again. I wanted to be proud of my accomplishments again.”

She gained all that back, including a sash and tiara as National American Miss Pennsylvania 2023. She will next compete on a national level in Orlando on Thanksgiving weekend in November while beginning a pursuit of her master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

A national win would be great, but being National American Miss Pennsylvania has plenty of perks, too, which help Stephens and other state winners pursue their passions. 

Stephens is involved with the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of her grandmother who passed away from the disease in 2022. It’s one of many causes she advocates for. Becoming Miss Pennsylvania gives her a platform to share information and raise awareness.

“It’s amazing. It really is,” Stephens said of her pageant win. “It’s not even just the title. It just opens so many more doors for you. Even just being able to help charities or advocate of the causes that you are passionate about on a higher level. Being involved in the community is really nice. It’s also cool to represent the state and to be thought of as a role model for other girls in the state. It’s a really empowering thing to have.”

Stephens credits pageants for helping her in several aspects of life. If she has kids someday, it might even be something they enjoy together. But it certainly wouldn’t be forced.

“I don’t think I would be the mom to have her kid start at 4 when she has no idea what’s going on,” Stephens said. “I think I would want it to be her choice and if she wanted to go a different direction and be a punk rock person like my mom, that would be totally fine, too. But I’d love to show her my videos and tell her about it and I’d love to encourage her to do it. I think my mom and I would have so much fun.”